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Virginia Journal of Education

Why Writing Matters

Writing is 'thinking on paper.' We need to ensure that our students can express themselves proficiently.

by Sally Hampton

During the late 1980s and early 1990s there was an intense interest in teaching students to write and, as a result, writing workshops were born in schools across the country. Teachers used mentor texts to illustrate stylistic features of quality writing and students routinely drafted and worked in response groups to polish their writing skills. Although in some schools this focus on writing is still commonplace, for many teachers and students it has disappeared, replaced by curriculum that addresses state test demands with a heavy emphasis on reading skills.

While it’s easy to understand this change in emphasis because of the No Child Left Behind legislation, it is a disadvantage to students in at least four ways:

1. Students fail to develop important content knowledge.
2. Students do not recognize genre structures that enable their comprehending and learning from informational texts.
3. Students are not skilled in writing, an ability essential to academic success.
4. Students rarely engage in and display critical thinking.

I will discuss each of these problems in turn in an effort to encourage making writing a critical part of English language arts curriculum.

When we read, we mentally knit together the text’s idea units into a web, called a textbase. This happens because the mind cannot hold in short-term memory all the information it’s absorbing. Simultaneously with developing a textbase, the mind enlarges this web of idea units with whatever relevant knowledge it already has. This combination is called the mental model. Comprehension is the interaction between the textbase and the mental model.

Now, let’s consider what happens during the writing process: When we write about the ideas we have encountered in reading, the mind must grapple with new information, blend these new understandings/ideas with relevant background knowledge, organize thoughts coherently, and then recast everything in language and form appropriate to audience and purpose.

As the writing processes happen, the new learnings are transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. When that happens, these new learnings become part of the reader’s storehouse of knowledge and can be accessed at a later time and in different circumstances. It takes grappling with ideas and linking them coherently to build knowledge; in short, it takes writing. So reading and writing about what we read builds our storehouse of knowledge, which in turn (because it is now background knowledge) expands our capacity to make sense of new text.

A. D. Van Nostrand says it this way:

“Composing consists of joining bits of information into relationships, many of which have never existed until the composer utters them. Simply by writing—that is, by composing information—you become aware of the connections you make, and you thereby know more than you knew before starting to write. In its broadest sense, knowledge is an awareness of relationships among pieces of information. As you compose, your new knowledge is your awareness of those relationships.”

A genre is a rough template that provides the writer and the reader with a common set of assumptions about what characterizes the text. So, for example, if the text is labeled a mystery story, then the plot line will be built around some puzzle to be resolved or some crime to be solved. Likewise, when a piece starts off “Once upon a time…,” there is an assumption that the text is a fairy tale or a parody of a fairy tale. But if the first line of a text is “Whales are mammals,” readers expect a very different genre—a report of information instead of a story.

Genres are made up of particular patterns of organization, particular techniques that develop the text, and particular language choices. Although there is a lot of variation from one text to another within the same genre, texts in a particular genre nevertheless follow a general pattern. As a result, writers purposefully order and present thoughts in language patterns that readers can recognize and follow, and readers develop expectations that enable them to anticipate where a text is going so they can make sense of it as they read. Understanding of mid-level structures (for example, compare/contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution, definition/example) offers similar benefits by giving the writer —and the reader— a predictable template to follow. It is important to note, however, that knowledge of any one genre or mid-level structure does not advance understanding of another genre or mid-level structure.

The genre that most students, especially those in elementary school, read and write is a form of narrative. Hence they are familiar with the structure and other elements related to this genre and can use their understanding of it to structure their writing and advance their comprehension of narrative texts. Unfortunately, knowledge of narrative will not enable students to read informational text, the genre that becomes the dominant one that students encounter as they move up through the grades. Without an understanding of the structures common to informational text, students struggle to follow lines of thought and to establish the relationships between the ideas in a text. They also struggle to locate key information, identify what is important and unimportant, synthesize information that appears in different locations within the text, and organize the information in memory. The more familiar students become with informational text and argument, as specified in the Common Core State Standards, and write about what they are reading, the more they can use these text structures to make meaning as a reader and use these structures as self-directed learning to generate their own writing.

Genre structures exist at the macro level of text. Sentence and paragraph structures exist at the micro level, and they, too, should be informed by certain expectations.

The sentence brings fragments of information together to become complete ideas. It has direction and current and momentum. Through the use of parallel structures, conjunctions and clauses, the writer adds meaning, modifies, elaborates and moves from known to new information. Then sentences are conjoined to create paragraphs and then paragraphs to produce a whole text.

A paragraph is a single sentence or a group of sentences set off as a unit. Paragraphs focus on one idea and are arranged within a text so that their topics cohere. They are linked by some reference, either explicit or implied, to the preceding paragraph.

All the rules governing sentences and paragraphs ensure order and cohesion, making the text both elegant and intelligible to readers. And all of these rules must be taught and mastered if students are to become skilled writers. For example, consider the following: Every sentence following the topic sentence in a coherent paragraph will usually include known information. Most frequently that information will be at the first subject position of the sentence; new information, the real purpose of the sentence, will usually come later in the sentence. This “known-new” sequence has become familiar to and expected by readers, and forms the basis of cohesion and sentence rhythm.

True, writing with an understanding of how to produce coherence and order is not likely to occur until after other aspects of the craft of writing have been carefully taught and mastered. Moreover, this kind of writing develops through years of instruction and practice. Yet, writing well, more often than not, is essential to academic survival. Essay tests, research papers, college application letters, Advanced Placement examinations, the ACT and the SAT all require student writing proficiency. This primacy of writing proficiency is not misplaced: Writing reveals what we know; more than anything else it is the measure of our learning. A fundamental goal of the language arts curriculum must, therefore, be to create skillful writers.

Think about all that a writer has to be able to do. When she writes, she works intensively with language – at the whole text level, the paragraph level, the sentence level, and the word level. And at each level she needs tools. She needs genre knowledge to help organize and present her thinking and to structure the whole text. She needs facility with paragraphing and syntax to help layer meaning and create linkages between the ideas she works to express. She needs a good vocabulary for precise word choice, something which is critical to making writing explicit. Additionally, she needs knowledge of grammatical structures and punctuation to make the writing intelligible to readers. And finally, she needs to be able to bring everything together and make her whole message coherent.

Manipulating all of the various constraints related to produce a polished piece of writing requires thought: which genre is best suited for the writer’s purpose and audience? Which mid-level structure will make meaning transparent? Which word will capture the writer’s intended tone and purpose? Which use of punctuation will emphasize what is/is not important?

At least equally important, too, is attention to presenting credibly the content of what the writer writes about. If a writer cannot logically connect idea units to illuminate the content, a reader will assume a lack of content understanding on the writer’s part or will be hopelessly confused about the topic. Certainly with in-school writing, students should work as hard to display what they know as they do to illustrate their writing proficiency.

When Ernest Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, was asked how to know if a given high school was doing a good job, he answered that simply having all the seniors write an essay on a subject of their choice and then reading those essays would reveal more about the quality of the school than would any other measure. What would be learned from this exercise would, of course, go far beyond the declarative knowledge students could display in that essay.

• You would see simply by topic choice what the student thought significant and what was best ignored.
• You would see how the student made sense of the information – how particular chunks were woven into clusters and what the overarching ideas were.
• You would see the degree to which the student could demonstrate actual understanding of the content and the amount of depth present in that understanding.
• You would see the student’s facility with language – or not.
• You would see the writer’s thinking.

Writing is thinking on paper. Unless students can produce text as an artifact, there is no certainty that critical thinking or learning is in place.

Hampton, a former classroom teacher, is a Senior Fellow for America’s Choice. She has also served as a Senior Fellow for the National Center on Education and the Economy and a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


Spotting Those Who Need Extra Help

Here are some common symptoms of students who are struggling with writing and may need extra attention:

A disconnect between knowledge and the ability to write about it: Students can talk about and otherwise demonstrate what they know, but it doesn't get expressed in their writing. Students lose grade points due to their writing, not their subject knowledge.

Writing is unreasonably slow and careful. Two or three sentences may be written in the time that others can write 20 to 30. Students know the answer, but it never gets fully expressed because there isn't enough time. Or, they spend lots of time writing and rewriting a single sentence, striving for perfection. They try to cram a paragraph of meaning into a single sentence.

They can only write for short periods of time before they seem to get distracted. For some students it can take a huge amount of mental effort and concentration to spell, read or write. It’s no wonder they need frequent breaks, but from the outside they seem easily distracted.

They avoid writing: Procrastination and avoidance are rarely a result of mere laziness. For some students, this can be a symptom of how it may be unreasonably hard and challenging, given the results. It’s not surprising they dread it, and try to find easier and more gratifying things to do.

Students unknowingly leave spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes. It’s possible they’re reading what they think is on the page, not what’s actually there. (Most of us don't read every single letter. We read in “chunks,” i.e., entire words and groups of words: This increases speed, saving time and mental energy.) This is even more common when reading their own work, because they think they know what’s there. Unfortunately, they sometimes presume to see letters and words that aren't actually there.

--Neil MacGregor, vice president of learner development, goQ software






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